Wednesday 24 March 2021

Sliding scales: "Raya and the Last Dragon"

Unexpectedly, Raya and the Last Dragon - Disney Animation's latest scaling-up of its efforts to court the Far East - opens in near-identical fashion to last summer's Luxembourg-sourced summer holiday cheapie The Fairy Princess and the Unicorn. Amid an unwieldy splurge of backstory, we learn how a kingdom that was happy, fruitful and prosperous when a certain mythical creature - in this instance, the dragon - was doing the rounds became fractious, barren and divided once said creatures were phased out. (Dragons, it turns out, were the olde-worlde equivalent of milkmen.) And the backstory keeps coming. The spirit of one such dragon was preserved in a gemstone, yet this stone was shattered and scattered when one of the warring human factions tried to sneak away with it. It's therefore down to our Lara Croft-ish heroine Raya (voiced by Kelly Marie Tran), first seen being put through Disney-warrior-princess training by her not-long-for-this-world father, to retrieve these pieces and restore a measure of harmony to her homeland. Any disappointment that follows from the realisation this is yet another expensive Hollywood studio movie where the narrative boils down to the collection of coloured pebbles can initially be offset against a workable, Pixar-level gag in the screenplay (by Qui Nguyen and Adele Lim): as Raya's segment of the gem is slightly cracked, so the dragon she summons from it to assist in her quest is also... slightly cracked. Sisu (the name will have an unfortunate resonance for any Coventry City fans who happen to be watching) has the height of Big Bird and the turquoise fuzz of Monsters, Inc.'s Sully; she's voiced - or, rather, yammered - by Awkwafina, having some of the same in-booth fun as Aladdin's Robin Williams as the character flips between kooky humanoid and giant firebreather.

As a film designed to reflect a culture back to an audience who presently have more disposable income going (and more cinemas open to spend that income in) than their Western equivalents, Raya is both committed and flattering. There's none of that underlying militarism by which last year's Mulan redo left such a sour aftertaste; it's still rare to witness an animation with this much brown skin front-and-centre; and the character animators have worked overtime to ensure every one of their leads presents as an absolute babe. (The Pacific Island light setting may have been a holdover from 2016's Moana: Raya enjoys several of the most ravishing magic-hour close-ups ever afforded to an animated heroine.) Far less appealing is the action, which is zippy but thin and temporary, very much reminiscent of those half-term timewasters, which tend to whip us around so as to conceal the fact they have perilously little else going on. A late, throwaway sidequest, involving a trio of comic-relief monkeys and a precociously cute toddler, is at least amusing, if redolent of the Jack-Jack business from Pixar's Incredibles series, but it's literally distraction. By the finale, in which characters clutch at glowing rocks and melt away in vast plumes of dust, we're back in crashy-smashy Avengersland; any art is holding on for dear life. Sisu's scattiness seems to have crept into the whole production: scene after scene yanks us pell-mell through worlds we might have preferred to gaze upon and marvel at, and half an hour after the credits rolled, I'd forgotten the significance of any of it. Like the New Mulan, it can't fail to catch the eye: just a few frames presented in isolation might be enough to make one consider taking out a Disney+ subscription, which may be Raya's ultimate purpose, given the way the film business is itself shapeshifting. Yet it's really just flirting with us. Forever prioritising motion over real mythos, it never gains the dramatic heft or permanency to become a beloved text or an animation for the ages.

Raya and the Last Dragon is now streaming via Disney+.

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